Around 20 older adult volunteers came to Wheaton and Gaithersburg libraries over the weekend to read books one-on-one with children in kindergarten through third grade, celebrating Read Across America Week. The two events came about thanks to a new partnership between Montgomery County Public Libraries and a branch of the Jewish Council for the Aging called Interages.
Janine Mans brought her 6-year-old son Alex to the Wheaton event on Sunday. She said Alex is an avid reader and loved picking out books to read with a volunteer. Alex chose two books from Ted Arnold’s six-part ‘Fly Guy’ series, illustrated adventure books designed for children ages 4 to 8.
“This is a great opportunity to connect people across generations in our community who might not otherwise cross paths,” Mans said. “The volunteer who read with my son, Mark, was just lovely. Mark even showed my son how to find out the year when a book was published. He learned the book he was reading was published just a few months before he was born.”
‘Read Across America Week’ is a weeklong national observance beginning on March 2, the birthday of beloved children’s author Dr. Suess. The National Education Association (NEA) launched the celebration in 1998 to motivate children and teenagers to read by participating in local events and programs.
This is the first time the county and the JCA held events for Read Across America Week, but a similar program sponsored by Interages has been running for over 10 years. Grandreaders is a summer literacy program where MCPS second graders are paired with volunteers who meets them at the library for several weekly reading sessions.
Steven Warrick is the regional manager of three MCPL branches, including Gaithersburg Library. He said not only are these events intergenerational—they’re cross-cultural.
“In some ways, it’s what Montgomery County is all about,” he said. “Some of our volunteer readers may not even be native English speakers, so we have bilingual material they could read. That’s one of the beautiful things about it—this is the public library. We’re open to everybody.”
In total, 23 children participated in the weekend’s reading events, according to Clotilde Puértolas from the Central Programs Team of MCPL.
Interages is an intergenerational volunteer program run by the Jewish Council for the Aging that puts older adult volunteers and students of all ages together through a variety of programs geared toward boosting students’ academic performance while building relationships across generations, according to senior director Kathleen Dennis.
“I think there’s a lot of misunderstanding and miscommunication that happens between generations, and the opportunities to be together, do things together, and have fun together with people outside your family is really important,” she said. “Building that understanding breaks down stereotypes.”
All Interages volunteers undergo a strict application and vetting process before being allowed to participate in events with children. There are currently around 200 approved volunteers, according to Dennis—and the group is always looking to expand. High school and middle school students can receive service learning credit for participation.
Recently, Interages instituted a new federally funded program called the AmeriCorps Seniors Foster Grandparent Program, targeted at low-income adults over 55 interested in working in schools. Volunteers are paired to work one-on-one with children in MCPS classrooms throughout the school year, providing social and academic support through on-site tutoring. Volunteers serve at least 20 hours a week and receive an hourly stipend of $4, starting April 1.
“We’ve been putting out flyers and posters everywhere to try to recruit specifically for this program,” Dennis said. “Our mission is really to provide opportunities for all seniors to thrive.”
She added that the the Jewish Council for the Aging celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. Dennis and Warrick both said Grandreaders is anticipated to return this summer. Older adults interested in volunteering in Grandreaders or in the Foster Grandparent program can contact Interages for an application.